The case against Lori Drew, the woman who was involved in the creation of a fake MySpace character that eventually lead to the suicide of troubled teen Megan Meier, who was the target of Drew’s charade, has concluded, and the Internet is in an uproar over the verdict.
Lori Drew pleaded not guilty in June to charges of accessing a protected computer to obtain information used to inflict emotional distress, conspiracy, and – and this is the one that has everybody up in arms – to charges of violating the MySpace Terms of Service.
The day before Thanksgiving, a Los Angeles Federal jury rendered its verdict in the case. While the jury was unable to find that Drew’s actions met the requirements for a conviction of accessing a computer without authorization to inflict emotional distress, they did find that Drew had violated MySpace’s terms of service, and that action was what lead to Megan Meier taking her own life and so (and here is the crucial part), the best they could do in a case where an adult maliciously assisted in the setting up of a teenager – known to be troubled and suicidal, and who ultimately did take her own life as a result of these actions – was to find her guilty of three misdemeanors based on her unauthorized access of MySpace, which violated their Terms of Service.
While Drew was looking at a possible 20 years or so in prison had she been convicted of the felonies, the misdemeanors carry with them at most a year in prison each, and according to all news accounts, Drew is not likely to be taken into custody at all.
BUT! The Internet community is in a complete uproar, fomented by a few online legal sites, and by extreme interpretations both of and by the Amicus* briefs submitted by the likes of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Hand-wringers are now claiming that it’s not safe to use sites like MySpace and Facebook – or even to use the Internet at all – because if you violate a site’s terms of service you can go to jail.
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Give me a break.
In theory you can go to jail for jaywalking too.
Clearly in this case the jury was unable to pin anything weightier on Drew, and they did the best that they could with a very serious and troubling situation. A young girl – known to be suicidal – died because she was told by the person manning the phony MySpace account that the world would be better off without her and that she should kill herself – and so she did. The phony MySpace account was facilitated by Lori Drew (that would be when she violated MySpace’s terms of service) – and that prior to this there was bad blood between Drew and Meier’s family is no secret.
Drew violated MySpace’s terms of service. Nobody denies that. The purpose of the fake account was to harass Megan Meier. Nobody denies that. Megan killed herself as a result, and nobody denies that either. So, what everybody is up in arms about is that the jury slapped Drew with three misdemeanors for the MySpace TOS.
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Does this really mean that you too could face jail time if you violate a sites Terms of Service?
It does mean that if you violate someone’s Terms of Service and as a result of your violating actions something really bad happens to someone, they may use the TOS violation against you if they have no other way to hold you accountable.
But Facebook and MySpace and a billion other sites across the Internet are not going to suddenly start suing people for ToS violations (which they can already do – the Drew case doesn’t change that at all).
And Federal and state prosecutors are not going to start arresting people for ToS violations. They don’t have the time or resources – they have too many jaywalkers to go after.
*An Amicus brief is a Friend of the Court brief submitted to advise the Court on issues and positions, usually submitted by organizations who are not party to the case, but have an interest in the outcome.
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